What’s hard to comprehend, now, is how much of Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of more than 300 preteen and teenage girls was conducted in plain sight. Erin Lee Carr’s new HBO documentary, At the Heart of Gold, includes excerpts from instructional videos Nassar posted online for other sports doctors to observe. In them, he runs his hands over girls’ bodies clothed in leotards; points out (and touches) one athlete’s gluteus muscle; massages one girl’s chest; pats yet another on the butt. Nassar went even further in private sessions with athletes, giving procedures he called “intravaginal adjustments” with ungloved hands and without prior warning. Often, when he did this, the girls’ parents were standing in the same room, watching while Nassar abused their daughters, listening as he talked nonstop the whole time.
Nassar, as At the Heart of Gold documents, was uniquely positioned to get away with what he did. He was a trusted, even beloved figure in his Michigan community, volunteering at his church and at local high schools, and offering free therapeutic sessions to girls who were cheerleaders, rowers, dancers. He had almost unchecked access to young athletes in his role as a sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. And, crucially, he was operating within a sport in which girls are primed from the beginning to silently endure what happens to their body, one with a philosophy of “athletic Darwinism” where only the strongest and most stoic will go all the way. “It’s almost like being a wounded animal,” the former Olympic gymnast Kathy Johnson tells Carr. “You don’t show your weakness. You don’t show that you’re hurt.”